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Raise your hands if you think the HTC Legend was one of the most well-designed smartphones ever. HTC then followed that up with design masterpieces such as the HTC One S and the HTC One V – all featuring sexy metal unibody casings that stood out from the rest of the pack. The One X, while not fashioned out of metal, took polycarbonate to another level, and showcased the Taiwanese manufacturer’s prowess in creating smartphones with awesome build quality. And if you think these devices are at the epitome of industrial design as far as HTC is concerned, you’re wrong. Its latest powerhouse is here, and sets a new benchmark in smartphone design. Dubbed the HTC One, it breathes fresh air into a segment flooded with plastic and flimsiness. Mind-boggling construction isn’t its only claim to fame though, and it’s loaded with top-notch specs, interesting features, and bucking the trend, a camera that attempts to put an end to the megapixel wars. But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves here – let’s take it for a test drive and figure out what this baby can do. Fasten your seat belts.

Design and hardware

Top-Angle


Carved from a single block of aluminum, the One marries solid build with gorgeous looks – easily catapulting it to the pinnacle of form and function.

Clad in black or silver, the aluminum chassis is a stupendous piece of engineering. Carved from a single block of aluminum, the One marries solid build with gorgeous looks – easily catapulting it to the pinnacle of form and function. The display at the front is flanked by precision-drilled holes at both ends – these being the dual frontal speakers. The only other orifices you’ll find are the 3.5mm headset socket on top, and the microUSB / MHL port at the bottom – the unibody design means that the battery is sealed and there’s no microSD slot either. The volume rocker is placed on the right, while the micro-SIM goes in a pin-removable tray on the left. The power key on top doubles up as an IR blaster, enabling universal remote functionality paired with the pre-loaded HTC SenseTV app.

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In a significant departure from the norm, HTC has chosen to forsake the standard Android task switcher key. You’ll only find two capacitive keys below the screen, back and home, with the HTC logo placed right between the two. A double tap of the home key works as the task switcher. Flip the phone over, and you’re greeted by the curved rear, with the camera lens and LED flash placed near the top, the HTC logo in the center, and the Beats Audio logo closer to the bottom. Thanks to the not-so-humungous (relatively speaking) 4.7-inch screen and the tapering sides, the device is extremely comfortable to hold, and one-handed usage is a breeze.

Rating: 9.5/10

Display

Display

Before the One came along, its own sibling, the Butterfly ruled the roost as far as smartphone displays are concerned, leaving its closest rival, the Sony Xperia Z biting digital dust. Both these smartphones feature 5-inch, 1920 x 1080 displays, and the one on the One (pun completely unintentional, yet intentionally not avoided), boasts of the same resolution, but sticks to a slightly more manageable size of 4.7-inches. Just like the Butterfly, the One’s full HD display is a visual treat, offering rich colors and razor-sharp text. With an eye-scorching pixel density of 468 ppi, the Super LCD 3 screen offers great viewing angles, and sunlight legibility isn’t a problem at all. And once you experience it for yourself, you may have trouble getting back to another phone. You’ve been warned.

Rating: 9/10

Camera

Camera-settings

HTC One Camera Settings

With phone cameras heading the same way as digital cameras, megapixel wars have reached new levels. While 8-megapixel snappers are now the norm on most mid-range to high-end devices, some flagships such as the Sony Xperia Z and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4 boast of 13-megapixel shooters. The HTC One? A measly four! In a bold move, HTC is attempting to blow the megapixel myth to smithereens by opting for a 4-megapixel main camera on the One.

Larger pixels capture more light, thereby allowing the camera to, in theory, produce great results

However, the word “megapixel” is not to be found anywhere in the documentation – HTC calls it “UltraPixel” instead. The innovation is in the use of larger pixels2.0 microns instead of the usual 1.1 microns on most smartphones. Larger pixels capture more light, thereby allowing the camera to, in theory, produce great results. This aside, the One’s camera has a few other tricks up its sleeve – including an F2.0 aperture, ImageChip 2, and optical image stabilization (OIS).

Camera-filters

In-built Camera Filters

At the front, the One is bestowed with a 2-megapixel camera. In terms of the interface, the proprietary HTC camera app is quite similar to that seen on the One X and the Butterfly, laden with all features we’ve come to expect, including panorama, HDR, burst mode, and a set of filters that can be applied even before the picture is taken. A new feature called HTC Zoe makes its debut with the Ultrapixel camera on the One. Once enabled, it captures up to 20 shots in sequence and a short 3-second video in an attempt to breathe life into the imagery. This can then be shared via HTC’s servers across your networks. The Zoe feature enables another new functionality called Object Removal. After you’ve captured your Zoe, you can edit it to remove unwanted objects such as bystanders in a group shot.

HTC Zoe settings

HTC Zoe settings

Sequence Shot is yet another feature, stitching five selected shots from a series of burst shots to create a single image of a subject in motion. In actual performance, the camera does fairly well in good light, but fails to truly impress. Very decent for the most part, we found some pictures lacking detail and vibrancy. If you crop your pictures after capturing, you’ll also find that the smaller image size tends to become an issue. On the other hand, low light performance is very good, and the shooter surprises with some very usable images in conditions where other smartphones, including stalwarts such as the iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy S3, just deliver patchy dark photos. Video performance is greatly improved thanks to the in-built OIS, and again, the camera delivers in low light. If you find yourself in dimly-lit environs such as pubs ever so often, the One is a great companion.

Photo Samples from HTC One

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Video Samples

Rating: 8.5/10

Software

BlinkFeed

The One runs Android 4.1.2 layered with HTC Sense. The Sense UI has been bumped to version 5, and now comes with a minimalistic, flatter look that bears little resemblance to earlier versions. The home screen experience has been drastically modified, and now features BlinkFeed – a scrollable array of tiles that, similar to Flipboard, deliver news from a variety of integrated sources, along with feeds from your social networks including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. Tapping on a news tile displays the full content, while tapping on a social tile takes you to the respective app. It’s a novel concept for a home screen, but the novelty wears off very soon. Also, as of now, there’s no way to add your own news sources. While BlinkFeed can’t be disabled, it can be relegated to the side by choosing another home screen as the default and setting it up with widgets of your choice.

The main app drawer is customizable – letting you organize apps into folders and order them the way you want. You can also hide apps and change the default grid size. However, the weather clock on top of the app drawer is a tad excessive, and a waste of screen real estate. App-drawer In terms of usability, the missing task switcher key could be an issue for some. The said key doubled up as the menu key on devices such as the Butterfly and the One X, and with that gone, the only way to access app menus is via the overflow icon, the location of which varies by app. For example, the overflow icon is placed on top right in the Play Store app, the Gmail Android app has it on bottom right, and the Facebook Android app uses an unwieldy black bar at the bottom for this, wasting screen space in the process. This makes the usage experience inconsistent. Pre-loaded apps include the basics such as Google’s suite of apps and Polaris document editor. A TV app works in conduction with the infrared blaster hidden in the power key to enable universal remote functionality. In our tests it was a bit of a hit and miss affair – the setup process is a tad convoluted for one, and after setup, while it worked flawlessly with our LG TV, it failed to work any magic with our Humax-made Tata Sky set-top box.

Rating: 8/10

Performance and battery life

Settings

With a top-of-the-line 1.7GHz, quad-core Snapdragon 600 chip and 2 GB of RAM under the hood, it’d be a mistake to expect anything less than super fast performance, and the HTC One doesn’t disappoint. It flies through apps and games, and rolls like a steamroller over anything that attempts to rear its head in defiance. Battery life, on the other hand, isn’t that impressive in comparison. The powerful specs and the full HD screen take their toll on the 2,300 mAh battery, which chugs along for about a full workday with medium usage. Your mileage could vary, but with 3G on, a few minutes of calling and texting, brightness set to auto, one push email account configured along with Twitter and Whatsapp usage, we managed to get the battery indicator into the red by evening.

There’s a customizable power saver mode that extends battery life by throttling the CPU speed and disabling data when the screen is off, and with its help, you should be able to make it home by evening to feed it some juice. However, if you need to head out to the pub or for dinner, you’d likely require a bit of top-up. The device is loaded with the full gamut of connectivity options, and in fact, is the first smartphone to come with Wi-Fi 802.11ac. That aside, there’s Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, DLNA, Miracast, and HDMI-out via MHL. With no way to expand memory, you’re stuck with the 32GB built in, but the USB On-The-Go support should help in a pinch. The built-in video player isn’t that friendly with different video formats, refusing to play some of the ones we threw at it. However, it does play the popular ones such as MP4 and DivX, even full HD ones, with ease. The music player is quite adept, and includes the feature to pull in track info and album art from the web automatically. The dual front-facing speakers are a true pleasure – they output rich and loud audio, creating a soundstage that enhances the media and gaming experience.

Rating: 8.5/10

Video Review

Conclusion

Priced at Rs 42,900 (~$780) in India, the HTC One will fall in the same bracket as the BlackBerry Z10 and the iPhone 5 when it lands on Indian shores by the end of April. In the US, it’s available for $199 on a 2 year contract with AT&T and Sprint, and for $575 for the unlocked version. The other two rivals in the reckoning, the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Sony Xperia Z, cost a good Rs 4,000 less. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is also expected to land very soon, and will possibly present the most intense competition to the One. At the top end of the smartphone spectrum, minor price variation is hardly of any consequence because the buyer is looking for the best. Each of these devices have their own killer features. While the iPhone 5 is a great all-rounder, the BlackBerry Z10 takes a fresh approach with its intuitive interface and innovative Hub to aggregate messaging. The Lumia 920’s shooting capabilities are in direct competition to the One’s low light prowess, while the Sony Xperia Z stands out with its full HD screen, water-resistant body and a feature-rich 13-megapixel shooter. Each of these devices may appeal differently to individuals who have their priorities cut out in terms of desired capabilities. However, for someone who’s after the most well-balanced smartphone out there, at this point our choice has to be the One.

Bottom

Its speedy performance is a no-brainer with those specs, and while it’s camera may be a mixed bag, it excels in low-lighting conditions. The screen is superb, the battery life is okay, and the software features, while being gimmicky for the most part, do help it carve a special place for itself. Combine all of that with a design that’s the best we’ve seen till date, and the HTC One is certainly the one we’d like to have as our daily driver. Calling it the best smartphone yet may not be a far-fetched statement to make. On the other hand, that “yet” in the statement is a huge caveat – we live in world where things can change in a flash, and the One’s supremacy may well be on shaky ground very soon. But as we wait to figure out what tomorrow holds, for today we’ll raise our glasses to the One.

Overall Rating: 9/10


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Ex-Contributing Editor

Tinkerer and lover of all things gadgety, Deepak has been covering personal technology and reviewing gizmos for almost fourteen years. After stints at Digit Magazine, T3 India and Engadget, he's now trying to carve a corner for himself on the interwebs. Smartphones and tablets are his favorite toys and he's played with most platforms out there to stretch them to their limits and figure out what they can really do.