April 8, 2013 -- Walk into a Best Buy or any mobile phone store, such as Verizon or AT&T, and try to tell the difference between the seemingly interminable Android phones. Telling apart the rectangle slabs requires some real talent and time, even for those of us whose job it is to know the differences between theses Google-powered phones. But HTC is hoping that all those other choices blur into the background, and that its new phone will be the only one that matters.
The HTC One, which costs $199 with a two-year contract, is one premium Android phone, with top of the line hardware specifications, an all-aluminum design and some unique software features. But is that enough to make it the only Android phone to focus on, especially with Samsung's Galaxy S4 on the way?
One of a Kind Hardware
I don't like plastic phones. I especially don't like plastic phones that feel flimsy, like they won't last the length of the two-year contract. The HTC One is not one of those phones. The all-aluminum device has a beautiful design and feels incredibly well-made. In fact, this is one of the only phones on the market that can rival the iPhone 5's sleek and head-turning design. But unlike the iPhone 5's squared edges, the One has a curved back, making it thicker at the center. Still, the 9.3mm-thick handset is very thin and comfortable to hold, despite its big-screen stature.
Now, of course, many will ask if this is a nicer feeling or looking phone than the Samsung Galaxy S4. I haven't reviewed Samsung's device yet, but from what I've gleaned from my short time with the phone, the One's metal build feels far superior to Samsung's overwhelmingly plastic device. I do have one main complaint about the hardware design: the power button, which sits on the top edge, should be easier to press, and I'd prefer it be on the right side, not the left.
Even if you end up hiding that beautiful silver hardware in a case, one of the most stunning parts of the phone will still be visible. The 4.7-inch, 1080p edge-to-edge glass screen is one of the sharpest and clearest displays on any phone to date. Colors don't only pop and look true to life, but HD videos and text just look sharper than they do on other phones I've tested, including the Nexus 4 and the iPhone 5.
Software with a Unique Look
The software that pops up on that display is unique too. The One runs one of latest versions of Android 4.1.2 or Jelly Bean, but HTC has created its own software, called Sense 5.0, that runs on top of Android.
Last year HTC moved away from messing too much with Android, but this year it's gone back on that. The new software includes a number of new features, the main one being a new type of home screen called Blinkfeed. Blinkfeed focuses on the content and not the apps. You can log in to your Facebook and Twitter accounts and select news sources. All that content will then appear in a vertical magazine style layout. Reminiscent of Windows 8 or Windows Phone, square- and rectangular-shaped photos with headlines or updates appear, and you can scroll through and then tap to select the ones you are interested in.
It's a nicely designed interface, though the content is limited right now. I preferred to revert the home screen back to the regular Android home screen. (You can set Blinkfeed to be the home screen to the left; you can't disable it fully.) There are other small additions too: Select the weather icon above the Blinkfeed interface and you get a nicely designed and animated weather app. There's one change, however, that I don't appreciate. HTC placed the Home button on the bottom right of the phone and removed the open apps button, straying from the typical Android design. I have been using the phone for a week, and I still haven't gotten used to the placement.
A quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and the 2GB of RAM in the phone make that software extremely snappy and responsive. I mean really snappy apps respond nearly instantaneously ,and so do webpages, thanks to AT&T's LTE network. AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile will carry LTE versions of the One.
However, while it is fast, that horsepower takes a toll on battery life. The One lasted about a full day of moderate use. Unlike with the iPhone, I worried about using the phone heavily at times, despite following my own battery-saving tips. And unlike with the Galaxy S4, the battery isn't removable either.
Ultrapixel: Ultra Better?
The last piece of the One puzzle is the camera. HTC says the megapixel war is over and has instead come up with an "ultrapixel" camera. The term is really just marketing jargon, but HTC promises that the camera has larger pixels that can let in more light.
That part holds true. The phone takes good low-light shots even without a Flash, but the other parts of the camera's performance left more to be desired. Shots I took on Auto mode were at times unbalanced and seemed to be very saturated. I was able to take some good shots, but other times it just seemed like the camera couldn't figure out how to automatically adjust the settings. (HTC says it could be a result of the pre-production software on my phone.) My iPhone 5 ended up being the more reliable camera when I wanted to grab a shot of this interesting tree.
But HTC attempts to make up for that shaky performance with some very interesting camera software features. One called Zoe takes a second of video before and after you press the shutter button. It shoots video and stills so you can then grab the best photo. It really helped when I tried to get a still shot of this very active puppy. There is also a highlights reel feature, which creates an instant slideshow or movie of your photos set to music. And thanks to the two front-facing speakers and Beats Audio software on the phone, that music sounds better than any other music I've heard come out of a phone or tablet.
Two. That will likely be the number of Android phones you should look at when you walk into a Best Buy or other mobile phone store this spring or summer.
The One is a beautiful phone with a well-made case, stunning screen and unique software. Yes, its camera and battery performance hold it back from being the perfect smartphone, but those other attributes set a new bar in the Android phone market. But there's no ignoring that Samsung's Galaxy S4 will be coming out soon and promises a host of new features and an impressive 13-megapixel camera. That's why I say there will be two phones to pay attention to. Those looking to buy a new top of the line Android smartphone should certainly wait until the S4 hits later this spring to make a decision, but for now, the One is the one to buy.