Tuesday, 28 May 2013

HTC One review

This review is a lot longer than I thought it would be, and I won't blame you if you want to skip around a bit. The article is comprised of my take on the main points: Design, Screen, Audio + BEATS, a couple of aspects of Sense. I'm going to dwell a bit on the Camera and then come to a conclusion of sorts. You'll find the main points highlighted in huge lettering, and...well, feel free to scroll to whatever interests you. Okay? Okay. On with it.

I imagine I'll be one of the first non-media individuals in Denmark to do a proper hands on review of the HTC One, since it's as elusive as a pink unicorn in the wild. It's been delayed several weeks in many European countries, while sales reps have had boxes upon boxes of of Xperia Z and Galaxy S4 to throw at customers asking in vain for The One. I've relentlessly teased HTC's public Twitter profile with the hashtag #RetailSuicide, but as I'm finalizing this review, the HTC One has finally become available in broader numbers.



The DESIGN has been covered extensively elsewhere, and yes, it is every bit as fabulously designed as everyone says. Although I am an Android person, I have always found the iPhone better looking. Not this time. The HTC One is the first phone that makes the iPhone look like last year's same-old-same-old.

The SCREEN is epic. Big props to HTC for not jumping on the phablet wagon along with the other bullies, keeping the size at a manageable 4.7". Clear and crisp with good color reproduction. A lot more vibrant than the Nexus 4 or the very bland Xperia Z, but nowhere near Samsung's super oversaturated SAMOLED monstrocities. It's a really good screen to look at and work with. Very readable, even in direct sunlight. How crisp is it? When you double tap the home button, you get a grid with snapshots of the most recent/running apps... On the One, the text within those tiny snapshots is completely legible!

The AUDIO capabilities are very good. The phone is fitted with stereo speakers that pack one hell of a punch compared to all other phones I've had my hands on, iPhone included. HTC is calling the phenomenon BoomSound™. Ok then. It's essentially a loud ass speaker. It provides really good sound, for a phone. It works. Select your ring tones wisely.

The in-call audio is excellent at both ends of the conversation. All good.

Whenever I see the BEATSAUDIOlogo, I find my eyelids growing so very, very heavy, as I'm inclined to believe that the BEATS brand's accomplishments lie in marketing rather than engineering. My problem with the implementation here is this: BEATS is essentially a bass booster pre-set; a glorified equalizer profile with its own toggle on the Settings main page. If BEATS is turned on, it's represented by a little red icon that pops up in my statusbar every time any audio is playing. If I turn BEATS off in Settings, the little red icon doesn't pop up, and the bass boost is off. That's it. Wait, that's it?

Well, no, if BEATS is on, the sound coming from the front speakers is great, but if I plug in the included in-ear speakers, it sounds like I've wrapped my head in a big towel and stuck it down the engine room of a fishing boat. Everything is completely dominated by bass with no dynamic range at all. Pink Floyd, Alice in Chains, Nick Drake...it all sounds the same. If BEATS is off, the in-ear speakers sound good, really great in fact, but the front speakers sound flat and tinny. So to the best of my reasoning there's nothing intelligent going on here.

Now, does this sound to you like something spawned by meticulous audio engineers or by marketing executives too smart to fit in their own heads? Yeah. That's my problem.

If I'd been managing this product, I'd like to believe that at some point either I or one of my more gifted underlings would have had the presence of mind to suggest, "Hey, how about we boost all the things when playing audio over the front speakers but automatically dial it back a notch when people plug in their in-ears? We could add it in the software or something? Maybe hide it behind the logo in Settings?"


This latest HTC SENSE has grown a lot since I last laid eyes on it...which was admittedly on gingerbread for the HTC Desire.

I like the dialer, it's cool looking and very readable, it has T9 dialing and stuff slides here and there without looking tacky. I like the messaging app for much the same reasons. It's well laid out, very readable and the only real shame here is that you can't send emojis at all and hardly see the ones that others send you. So boohoo if you got friends on iPhones or Android phones running CyanogenMod, AOKP or whatever.

All in all, the basic apps like, calendar, calculator, people and so on work, look and feel much like Google's own, but with a makeover. For the better? I'dunno...I am an AOSP man at heart, but I like the style. Maybe it's the Impact-like typeface, the discreet gradients or the flat, stark look of it all. But it looks good.

I like the LOCK SCREEN a lot. You swipe upwards to unlock, and your dock icons are represented here - swiping one of them opens to that app. Neat. There are a couple of options for the lock screen. You can pick between old school displaying just your wallpaper (or another wallpaper), a music player, a "productivity" mode that I prefer, letting you see your new messages, emails, missed calls, and upcoming calendar events. Swipe the notification to open to unlock straight to that app/event. You can also forego the lock screen completely, turning on your phone straight to the...erm...secondary lock screen.

The LAUNCHER is not just a launcher, you see. It's been injected with BlinkFeed™ which is sort of a flipboard knockoff. BlinkFeed is the thing that greets you when you unlock your phone, and it looks pretty cool at first glance, aggregating a lot of information right there, but after only a few days, it begins to feel like an additional lock screen. A novelty item. I mean, when I unlock my phone I sort of just want to get to my apps. Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's that I can only choose between the few preinstalled information sources...So yeah, I'm interested in eh..."Smartphone" and "TV" - and the local news provider that sucks the least. I can't add my own. Bummer. Fortunately, it's easy to get rid of (just set another home screen as default. Thanks, @NitrozK).

As for its core functionality, the launcher works quite well. It's swift, I have been unable to create any lag whatsoever, but it comes at the cost of a very basic feature set. It sports a grid of 4 by 4 icons that are too few and far between on a screen this big and detailed, at least for my taste. There are no settings I could find that lets me adjust the grid size, or resize widgets or any other features present in any 3rd party launcher. It doesn't pick up website favicons, and since I can't change labels or assign custom icons for shortcuts, I have a news folder looking like this (one of them is a stand alone wrapper app). Amendment on June 6: As Jagdish Chander points out in the comments, I can change the grid size in the app drawer from 4x5 to 3x4 (which is even worse in my opinion).

We're getting a trend here, right? A faint scent of apples, if you will, in the sense that everything is good, it's really well designed, and it works quite well, if you like how it works. If not, well, boo-hoo.

The CAMERA has been one of the most discussed aspects of the HTC One. The so-called UltraPixel camera would supposedly make up for its meagre 4 megapixels by those pixels being much larger than we're used to. This would allow each pixel to register more light, making for brighter, clearer pictures with less need for post processing and so and so forth. So the camera's great, right? Well, not exactly.

I've tested the camera in two (somewhat un-scientific) ways. First I took the One on a mini vacation with my family and took a bunch of photos, which I'm not going to share, because they're personal holiday photos and all - then I looked at them to see what I thought of them. Yeah, I know - groundbreaking stuff, right? The sunny photos are nice and vibrant and pretty much what I'd expect from a phone cam, except that the resolution is somewhat lower than what we're used to these days. More on that later.

When I came back, I took a few typical photos with the HTC One and then shot the same motif right after, from the same angle and so on, using a couple of other cameras I happened to have at hand:

- Nexus 4. Google's current reference design.
- Olympus TG-1. A relatively cheap, "toughened" family camera. 12 MP, 18mm lens.
- iPhone 5 courtesy of my lovely wife in a couple of shots.
- Canon EOS 7D. A pretty damn good upper-mid-range DSLR. Just to set one thing straight.

Here's a set of garden shots taken with the various cameras...
(click the indidual thumbs for the full image)

As we can see, all the cameras struggle with the bright grey skies and the white apple blossoms, but I'd have to say that the One does the worst job. It consistently delivers decent'ish color reproduction, although slightly oversaturated, but it overexposes the brighter areas wildly...
It becomes even more apparent in these shots...

...where the HTC One turns the blue sky white, merges it with the apple blossoms and blurs the bottom half of the picture, while the iPhone takes a proper photo of the scene.

In terms of picture quality the One also comes out looking bad. I took a couple of photos of an improvised eye exam at a distance of approximately 5 metres (~16.5 feet). The resulting crops are lined up below...

My wife and I also had the opportunity to grab a photo of an amusement park scene with the One and an iPhone 5 at the same time. There's a telling detail crop set below.

Although it's refreshing to see a phone manufacturer opt out of the megapixels race, it's quite apparent that although the MPs aren't everything, they're not completely irrelevant. You can have a lot of noise in a 8+ mp phone camera, but you can mostly post process your way out of it. Downsizing takes care of a lot of artifacts, and you can do a lot with the dynamic range by pushing the Auto Tone button in something like Adobe Lightroom.

What you can't do is recreate information that simply isn't there. Yeah, I know, the CSIs on TV can retrieve a license plate number off the reflection from a lipstick canister in a traffic camera photo taken half a mile away. In real life, the full alphabet in line three will always remain a blurred line if shot with the HTC One.

I'm not going to spend more time on that. Marketing blurb aside - neither resolution, image quality or color reproduction are exactly stellar.

So the camera sucks, then? Well...not exactly.

The photos look decent enough on the One's own screen, and having a Snapdragon 600 process your measly 4MP shots means you can take pictures real quick. It also focuses fast and quite well. It takes pictures instantly, so much so that you'll be seeing motion blur on your shots if you tap the on-screen shutter button too hard. You can hold the shutter button and take a lot of photos in rapid(!) succession - then select the best shot out of the bunch, or stitch some of them together as a SEQUENCE SHOT.

You can do some cool stuff with it, if you use your imagination. You can also make it look like triplets are driving three shitty Citroëns in procession. The choice is yours.

The HTC One also does quite well in low-light settings, which is where the bigger pixels become relevant.
Here's my kitchen in what I'd call darkness....

Here are a couple of balloons taken with the One at night - the first with a lamp on, the other in darkness with a single light on in the bathroom across the hall.

I know the second isn't a good photo - it just illustrates how little light the One needs to produce something! It does really, really well in typical evening conditions - so well, in fact, that the HDR mode is sort of redundant.

Looking back at the quality comparisons, the main points that stand out is that the One is really bad and the Nexus 4 is much better than it is usually given credit for :-) That is, if you're shooting a landscape or other stationary scene in full daylight. Most phone cams (The Nexus 4, SGS3, GNex and Xperia Z spring to mind) are virtually incapable of photographing a moving object or anything in a nighttime setting, though. They can't focus properly and they don't fire when you press the button - and that is where the HTC One excels.

I'd still take a proper camera to a friend's wedding ceremony, but the HTC One would do quite well at the party afterwards.

One afterthought, though - an annoyance that this phone shares with a lot of others. The maufacturers fit their phones with super duper corny gorilla scratch resistant screens...then they fit the camera lens with soft plastic that is flush with the back side. What the hell?

So in CONCLUSION, how about that HTC One, huh? It's a really nice phone, a very good music player. It's really well built, looks and feels amazing, the battery is quite good as well. The screen is epic, it's really snappy and the device is an absolute joy to use in any setting. While I suppose I still prefer the Naked Android, HTC Sense is consistently well designed and well thought out. It feels like the complete opposite of Samsung's and Sony's overlays in that it doesn't add that much, but it doesn't ruin everything else in the process.

Sense is the calm and composed corporate website against Samsung's blinky, beepy 1998 geocities home page :-) The additions are functional, like the added camera features, built-in photo sharing service and BlinkFeed. It works, and if you don't like it, like BlinkFeed, it's not embedded so deep that you can't get rid of it.

There's even good third party AOSP developer support, seing how a bunch of heavy hitters (in my book) like @romanbb, @codeworkx and Mr. @Cyanogen himself already picked up the One, and rumor has it that there's a HTC One Google Edition on it's way...the effects of which may or may not seep through to us suckers early adopters.

I've had the opportunity to play around with the HTC One alongside Samsung's Galaxy S4 and Sony's Xperia Z, and the One feels like in its whole own league. Instead of just nudging the ports, lens and faux carbon fiber around a bit, bumping the version with the proverbial +1, S or Z, HTC took a risk and made something that looks like it was built in the future by a man from 1960. I can't not like that!

Is it perfect? No.



HTC's distribution issues aside, I've only been able to spend these past two weeks with the One thanks to the kindness of a good friend abroad, who has declined any public credit. Be assured, though, that in the words of one of our mutual favorite authors, "My gratitude extends beyond the limits of my capacity to express it.” 

1 comment:

  1. Neat review. You can totally customize the grid in the app drawer though; no 3rd party launcher required. Please do post an edit :)

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