Editors' note: For this review, I focused on how the HTC One Google Play Edition differs from the carrier-branded versions of the handset. For my complete assessment of the HTC One's design, features, and performance, please see the full review.
Though the HTC One is a stellar phone just as it is, I know that many Android purists would prefer that it shipped with Google's stock OS while forsaking all of the fancy tricks and glitzy software that HTC layered upon it. Fortunately, with the new $599 HTC One Google Play Edition, that day is here.
Using the same hardware and design as the 32GB GSM HTC One model, this unlocked handset runs pure, sweet Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, the freshest version available. Even better, Google has pledged that the HTC One Google Play Edition qualifies as a true Nexus device, so it will be first in line for future updates. It all sounds like a dream come true, but there are trade-offs for pushing HTC Sense aside. For example you can kiss goodbye all of the standard HTC One's slick camera features, such as Zoe Share, TV remote control, and BlinkFeed. If that's a price you're willing to pay for Android purity, though, besides a lot of cash up front, then this phone is worth a look.
Alternatively, if you're a Samsung fan, note that Google today also released a stock Android version of the Galaxy S4.
I've gushed previously at length about the HTC One's premium design. I won't bore you with all the gory details here, but suffice it to say, this phone's all-aluminum chassis is meticulously chiseled from one piece of metal. It's also polished with diamond brushes for that extra bit of panache. Basically your hand and reptilian brain know they're dealing with a gloriously crafted device the instant you pick it up. When your conscious mind catches up a few nanoseconds later, it all clicks into place.
The HTC One's 4.7-inch LCD screen is arresting as well, offering a sharp 1080p resolution (468 ppi) along with vivid colors. The display gets awfully bright, too, and you'll have no problem viewing it in bright sunlight.
Software and interface
As I mentioned, the real star of this HTC One show is the stock Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean operating system. If you've held the LG Nexus 4 recently, you'll feel right at home. That stock Android means a couple of things: the HTC Sense interface is completely scoured away and there's no BlinkFeed, the Flipboard-style news aggregator. The latter change will come as a relief to some since you can't remove BlinkFeed on the standard HTC One (you can only banish it to a far-flung home screen).
In yet another change, the lock screen doesn't handily display upcoming calendar appointments, current weather conditions, or other info at a quick glance (a consequence of losing HTC Sense). On the other hand, plain Jelly Bean offers one additional home screen for a total of five.
Other navigation differences in the HTC One Google Play Edition include the side-scrolling application tray, which I actually prefer, as opposed to Sense's vertical app shortcut layout. I also like being able to access widgets from within the app tray, how Jelly Bean serves things up. Sense on the HTC One separates widgets out so you must perform a long-press on a home screen to grab them.
While stock Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean brings many slight tweaks over HTC Sense, the most immediate changes I found affect how users operate the One's camera. Indeed HTC makes a lot of noise about the One's photo- and video-taking abilities, with its Zoe Share feature and Ultrapixel sensor. I have to admit these are bells and whistles I miss the most on this version of the HTC One. It's gimmicky, I know, but as a new parent, I love how the HTC Sense photo gallery files pictures and video I record around the date, what the application calls "events."
The killer app, though, is how the phone software will automatically stitch together video, images, and the short 3-second movie clips (called "Zoe shorts") into video highlights. Even better, the photo gallery scores highlights to a selection of sentimental audio tracks, plus will edit these movies to match the music. It can be hit or miss, but the One has created some truly tear-jerking gems, some of which I've been compelled to share over Facebook or e-mail with family and friends.
The One Google Play Edition's basic camera doesn't offer any of this kind of mushy pageantry. Many surely won't care if Zoe Share isn't here, but I mourn its absence. That said, it still boasts the 4-megapixel Ultrapixel sensor and Image Sense imaging processor. That means the phone takes pictures just as quickly, practically instantly, and performs very well under low-light conditions. Of course, as with the standard HTC One, the Google Play Edition tends to introduce distracting color noise in extremely dark environments.
Jelly Bean 4.2.2's camera software does provide a selection of shooting modes such as Party, Action, Sunset, and Night. You also get a horizontal panorama mode plus the new Sphere mode to combine photos together into 360-degree landscapes. There's also the option to edit images after they've been shot, such as cropping and adding color filters.
Perhaps it's the lack of having HTC Sense layered over the operating system, but the HTC One Google Play Edition felt very quick and lively in my hands. Menus and apps popped open like greased lightning, and home screens flew by with astonishing speed. That said, it could all be smoke and mirrors caused by Jelly Bean's Project Butter, an initiative to improve Android handling.
A quick run of the Quadrant benchmark, a test that tries its best to squeeze a phone's system to the limit, revealed that the HTC One Google Play Edition is just as swift as its HTC Sense counterpart. The impressive 11,986 score I logged, though, is right in line with the performance of its predecessor. The standard HTC One scored a slightly higher 12,194 on the same test.
One nice surprise was the data performance I experienced on my One Google Play Edition device. Google claims that the unlocked GSM phone will support SIM cards from both AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S., so I decided to give things a whirl. After sliding in my T-Mobile SIM and searching for a T-Mobile signal, I was greeted to a friendly LTE logo indicating that I was linked to T-Mobile's modern 4G infrastructure.
Even though T-Mobile's 4G LTE service isn't officially launched in New York, I managed to pull down average download speeds of 9.7Mbps. Uploads clocked in at slightly higher average of 10.1Mbps. I'll certainly take those numbers to the bank, sanctioned by T-Mobile or not.
For some reason, though equipped with the same 2,300 mAh battery, the HTC One Google Play Edition's battery life doesn't live up to its HTC Sense-running sibling. The phone hung on for 8 hours and 9 minutes on the CNET Labs video playback battery drain benchmark. That's much shorter than the longevity I observed on the standard HTC One (9 hours and 37 minutes). This result seems odd, so I plan to run further tests to confirm.
Which HTC One is for you?
I know that a lot of people out there have dreamed of the day when the HTC One's luxurious design was combined with the best Google has to offer. As the old saying goes, however, be careful what you wish for. The new $599 HTC One Google Play Edition certainly keeps the same sweet styling and design, which bowled many an Android fan over. It also packs Android software that's worthy of a Nexus-class Google flagship. Indeed in many ways this phone is what the LG Nexus 4 came so very close to being.
Unfortunately you do pay a price for Google's commitment to push regular Android updates to the One Google Play Edition, namely a lot of slick capabilities that HTC lovingly placed on the standard HTC One. OK, I couldn't give a hoot about BlinkFeed; I mean, that's what Flipboard is for. Those HTC Zoe features, cool weather, and other glance-able info have wormed their way into my heart, though, no matter how sappy that sounds. The One Google Play Edition's steep upfront price is tough to swallow, too.
So who ultimately is the HTC One Google Play Edition for? It's the perfect device for well-heeled uber geeks (I mean that in the best possible way) who know quality hardware when they see it, and can't stomach any wild alterations manufacturers bring to their beloved Android. I feel that strong pull, too, but for the ordinary customer, the standard carrier-branded HTC One makes a heck of a lot more sense.