The HTC One


Yes, I’ve been using an Android phone for the better part of three months. Again. And guess what, I’ve been enjoying it.

Since the HTC One Max is making its debut these days (and hence pushing the original One down the value chain), I was compelled to clean up my notes and post a review of sorts before my views became hopelessly outdated. After all, I’ve used it almost daily (every workday, switching back to my iPhone 5 for weekends) and there’s a lot to be said for the whole experience – and why I think it’s the best overall Android device out there right now.

First Impressions

I loved the hardware from the moment I unpacked it. I’ve always been a sucker for build quality (I still treasure my lovely1 metal-backed Nokia E71), and the overall feel of the One is simply great – a single piece, finely chiseled metallic casing that feels miles ahead of Samsung‘s trashy designs and a step up from Sony’s generally pleasant matte plastics.

Oh, and it has no battery cover. Shocker, huh?

The screen is excellent (nice deep blacks, good – but not excessive – color saturation and full HD resolution), and the two – yes, two – “buttons” are much handier than the iPhone‘s depressingly physical alternative2, although I do wish HTC had decided to go with the Android norm here.

In short, it’s a modern, urbanite device that looks like it was actually designed into being instead of being another knock-off.

Sense UI

The stock firmware that shipped with the One I got was Android 4.1.2. A week later or so I was treated to their 4.2.x over-the-air update, but the overall experience was mostly the same - HTC’s Sense UI is an almost complete replacement for the overall Android experience, but unlike, say, Sony’s approach (which basically re-themes everything but leaves the overall flow mostly untouched), HTC decided to go medieval on it.

You know, like Samsung did. But where Samsung went for garish coloring, inconsistent backgrounds, junk apps and toy features, HTC went the straight and prim route, with plain menus, a spartan app launcher and a few polishes here and there. I must say they got things mostly right - for instance, the settings menus have a nice “stretchy” feedback to them, and (unlike Samsung‘s styling) the iconography actually makes sense.

The things they didn’t get right are aggravating, though. For starters, BlinkFeed is a Flipboard-like “social” home screen widget you can’t actually disable (yet – I have hopes for the future) and makes it near impossible to figure out who posted what, because it omits avatars from social networks (always easier to recognize than screen – or even real names) and seems to have its own warped sense of time.

As usual, customizing the Android experience is not necessarily a good idea, and their decision to leave out one of the standard Android buttons (you only get Back and Home, which does triple duty as home, multi-tasking and Google Now) leads to a situation where some apps will waste screen space rendering a menu button (which I personally find extremely annoying).

Constantly having to decide between tapping or long-pressing the home button mostly nullified any “simplification” they might have considered an improvement, and as a result it’s almost as unwieldy as an iPhone for quickly switching between apps.

But once you’ve figured out the right timing, a press on the home button gives you a 3x3 grid of running apps instead of the standard vertical list that is a mainstay of Android 4.x. You can flick up an app to dismiss it, but the grid layout makes it awkward to do that single-handedly on a device this big – whereas, ironically, the default Android UI would have fared better.

In terms of bundled apps (which may or may not be part of the Sense experience), there wasn’t much to report – there’s a “Kid Mode” app that lets you limit access to sensitive/dangerous/fascinating parts of the device (which I haven’t used, since I stick the phone in a high shelf as soon as I get home), a PDF viewer, and an office file viewer, as well as a few other unimportant doodads.

Mail, Calendar, Contacts & Sundry

I originally thought I’d have nothing new to report, since accessing corporate e-mail and manipulating any kind of attachments is pretty much impossible to do sanely on Android (as compared to the relative seamlessness of iOS).

However, it turns out I was wrong – HTC turned the built-in e-mail client into something actually usable (even if the UI is still somewhat clunky, it has sane filters, pull to refresh and a mostly harmless search function), and I’ve had no unusual trouble accessing mail. Although navigating complex IMAP folder trees is still somewhat of a challenge, the One sports a “unified” inbox as well as an easily accessible drop-down to get at recent folders.

Calendaring mostly worked, too (appointments show up on BlinkFeed, which is the only redeeming aspect of it as far as I’m concerned), except that meeting requests (Exchange or iCal) weren’t recognized – but my expectations towards managing my schedule on Android are so low that I never really tried to do it on the One and simply relied on my desktop calendar.

Contact management is the usual Android nightmare – any app that thinks it has the right to accessing your contacts sets up its own contact data provider, and even though HTC tried to put a brave (and polished) face on it, I had eleven contact sources in the Contacts app, from SIM contacts to LinkedIn.

Worse, since HTC boasts Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and LinkedIn integration into Sense, I had duplicated contacts from those sources and their native apps, which means I currently have 1156 contact link suggestions and hundreds of duplicated fields across my entire address book. Fortunately, I sync my iCloud contacts with it via my desktop, so there’s no feedback loop between platforms.

But on the whole, the PIM apps are well thought out, enjoy above-average sobriety in terms of visual design and work well – probably better than the stock Android equivalents, since I can side-swipe into a contact and get a glimpse into their social (and professional) timeline without much hassle, whereas I never could get the Android “social contact list” working properly with anything but Google+.

Still, I use this kind of thing once in a blue moon, so your mileage (and interest) may vary.

Text Input

Text input is still a mixed blessing: HTC has tweaked the standard Android cut and paste mechanism somewhat with slightly larger cut and paste tooltips, but it’s still fiddly to accurately position the caret and select or insert text. And where insertion is concerned, the default Sense keyboard looks great and supports swipe input, but punctuation is all over the place and the symbol layout is inconsistent with what you get on AOSP (and hence pretty much every other device), so switching between the One and stock Android can be frustrating.

To their credit, however, they included arrow keys on the Sense keyboard (which go some way toward lessening the usual frustration of positioning the caret on Android input boxes), and the keyboard is a fair bit more responsive than what I get in other, comparable (i.e., contemporary) Android phones.

But the large form factor plays heavily against prolonged use of it (your hand starts aching from swiping the thumb across and the consequent wrist twisting) and the only way I could write for any length of time was in two-handed mode.

Camera

I had mixed results with the camera, but then again I don’t really go in for smartphone cameras in general. It does feel somewhat sub-par for anything except video after you’ve used an iPhone 5 (let alone a 5S), but it does have a nice dynamic range and takes great indoor photos.

Of course, as sensitive as the sensor might be, at 4 megapixels it’s not flawless. If you intend to use your photos for anything other than posting online (or viewing on that huge digital photo frame you call a TV), you’re sure to eventually want a little more resolution for cropping, etc. – so make sure you frame your photo properly when you take it, and you should be OK.

The drop in quality is more noticeable if you use Zoe, which allows you to pick stills from a video – the one feature Apple neglected to mention having “borrowed” for the iPhone 5. It is, however, surprisingly good in low light situations, and not to be sneezed at – best to take a halfway decent photo than a blur.

But straight-up video, on the other hand (as far as I bothered), was nice, crisp and with very natural colors, so I certainly need to spend a while longer trying out the camera and getting a better feel for its limitations (like I pointed out at the beginning, I swapped back to my iPhone on weekends, which cut down on photo opportunities).

Audio

I haven’t used the phone for music, and quite honestly I haven’t much incentive to do so, for I have ready access to altogether too many alternatives, including my employer’s own music service (which launched a new spiffy Android client only last week, besides Mac and iOS ones). I’ve used iTunes for ages now, too, and I’ve imported a bunch of tracks onto Play Music as well for the sake of experimentation, but on the whole I only listen to music a few minutes a day.

The built-in speakers have yet to disappoint me (although I don’t use them much, the few occasions I did they lived up to the hype), and it ships with its own music player and associated store, which I found unremarkable and generally less interesting than Play Music – for starters, Play Music handled the headset controls better, much to my amazement.

High Marks

This is probably the first Android phone where I could land on a web page, scroll around speedily, tap a YouTube video, and have it play almost instantly (a feat hitherto witnessed by me only on iOS devices, and which my now effectively obsolete iPod Touch still manages daily). It’s very snappy, and I’ve had zero performance issues with it – everything I threw at it worked fine, the UI is mercifully bereft of the usual Android hangups, and even gimmicks like the IR blaster (which I used once to switch channels on my TV and promptly forgot about) or NFC (which I only use for testing stuff) work fine.

Battery life was about what I expected – I usually finish the working day with an iPhone at 70-90% (yes, 90% – I don’t talk on the phone much, and most data traffic are notifications and the odd web page during lunch), and the One clocked in at 40-70%, which I found acceptable considering the screen size and Android‘s propensity for generating traffic at the drop of a hat.

And despite the stupid little dance one always makes when trying to plug in a Micro USB connector (it always takes me three tries to get it right somehow, whereas I’ve yet to have trouble plugging in Apple‘s Lightning connector even once), it is very convenient to have a phone you can charge everywhere with little hassle.

Just think about it – no more panic attacks when leaving the house in a hurry and noticing your battery is at 30%, even though you’re likely to curse at Ajay Bhatt every time you try to plug it in.

The screen is unquestionably great, in all aspects, and I blame it for getting me to try out Play Books (which was upgraded soon after I got the device). It is quite large enough for comfortable reading, and I soon got into the habit of clearing out my Instapaper queue on it during my daily commute.

But the screen is also (paradoxically) one of its weak points.

Downers

The One’s main downside for intensive use (and the reason I’m extremely skeptical of the current trend towards even bigger phones) is its size.

It’s awkward to get out of a pocket in a hurry, and the hard edges bit into my hands sometimes. More importantly, though, reaching for some UI elements can be somewhat of a stretch3 – in fact, it was actually painful to use for any significant period of time during my recent tussles with RSI, to the extent where I went back to my iPhone instead for a week.

Now, I don’t have small hands (my open handspan, thumb to tip of pinky, is nearly as wide as an iPad, and I can wrap the tips of my fingers across most 7” tablets in portrait orientation), but the One has always felt a tad too large to use comfortably as a mere phone, and yet it’s small enough that two-handed use is somewhat of a nuisance – as such, I am flabbergasted at the prospect of something the size of the One Max, and have to wonder whether or not, despite the current stampede towards larger and larger sizes, a (much) smaller phone and a 6”/7” tablet wouldn’t be a vastly better (and more ergonomic) combination4.

But, of course, your mileage may vary.

Another thing that annoyed me to no end during Summer was that it tended to get almost unreasonably hot – the metal casing acts as a heat sink, but your hands are more likely to absorb that heat than the surrounding air. At times, even firing up Chrome and browsing through a few pages was enough for it to become noticeably warm, and even though I played no regular games on it (I’ve found that the best way for phones to become unappealing to children is for them to actually have no games in them whatsoever), the heat was especially noticeable when running Ingress (which is about the most stressful thing you can do to an Android phone).

They also (for some stupid reason) removed the standard Owner Information feature, which I use to display an emergency contact on my phone’s lock screen. It was hardly any trouble to burn that onto a custom wallpaper, but it’s the kind of arbitrary feature trimming that predisposes ordinary people against manufacturer (and carrier) customization.

Updates

Like I wrote above, HTC has so far been quite prompt with updates. The One ran Android 4.1 out of the box, got 4.2 a few weeks later (as well as a couple of minor updates to built-in apps), and I expect 4.3 to arrive in a couple of weeks at most (given that it’s an European model, and hence a trifle out of phase with what you might read about in what passes for tech news today).

In that regard I’m mostly happy with HTC’s support. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll keep updating the One over the next year or so (which would still be a year less than what you typically get for a iOS device), but this being Android, there are other options if they decide to move on and leave the One behind.

I intend to eventually re-flash this as a Nexus Edition device (as soon as a suitably “official” way to do so emerges – if not, I’ll just go CyanogenMod on it), but on the whole, Sense isn’t bad – ultimately, it’s nice to use but just too clever for its own good.

But it’s interesting to note that even though I miss vanilla Android I’m quite curious as to what they’ll do in Sense updates (if only because it seems the new version will let me get rid of BlinkFeed).

Bottom line? It’s the best customized Android you can get your hands on, with the best build quality I’ve tried this year, and if you can handle a phone this big, it’s a no-brainer – second only to an iPhone, of course.


  1. I loved that phone so much I even said it was better than the [iPhone]iph, once. Can you believe that? ↩︎

  2. In case you missed my earlier rants, I loathe the iOS home button with a passion, since it’s not just a pain to use for multi-tasking but also inconveniently located. I’ll happily grant that it’s very nice and reassuring for most people, but I just want something better↩︎

  3. Which was one of the reasons I didn’t laugh (very) hard when I spotted the insane small screen mode in recent Samsung devices. ↩︎

  4. I have a whole draft about that, which I may or may not post in upcoming weeks depending on further reflection. ↩︎


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