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HTC One Max is bigger, not better (hands-on)

HTC joins the ranks of Sony and Samsung with an oversized smartphone, but the HTC One Max doesn't pack as much of a punch as we'd like.

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Editors' note: For a full review of the HTC One Max read CNET UK's evaluation of the global model of the handset.

HTC is the latest major phone maker to jump on the massive-handset bandwagon with its new HTC One Max. Echoing devices from rivals Samsung and Sony, the One Max bears a gargantuan 5.9-inch screen yet manages to hold on to some of the smaller One's metallic style.

Unlike the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, the LG G2, and Samsung's new Galaxy Note 3, though, the HTC One Max lacks the full-throated roar of Qualcomm's high-octane Snapdragon 800 processor. That said, the HTC One Max does its best to entice power Android users with plenty of other bells and whistles, including a fresh rollout of HTC's Sense interface along with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean software. Another slick enhancement up its sleeve is a fingerprint reader for added convenience.

HTC was kind enough to treat me to a little hands-on time with the HTC One Max and I have to say I'm left a little underwhelmed by this oversize creation. I seriously doubt the One Max has the chops to beat back the other gigantic phones that are its competition. In my mind a larger-than-life phone needs to come with more than merely a humongous display, especially if it wants to fend off potent gadgets such as the Note 3, which pairs power with an impressive array of capabilities.

A Maxed-out HTC One
Close your eyes and imagine if the HTC One flagship phone and the smaller HTC One Mini crossbred. Now visualize the offspring of that union being hit with a growth ray. What you'll have on your hands is the HTC One Max.

Standing a full 6.5 inches tall by 3.3 inches wide and 0.4 inch thick, the 7.7-ounce One Max is certainly a handful. It's over 2 inches longer than the HTC One and well over 2 ounces heavier. Still, HTC tried to keep the device manageable, limiting the Max's width to 3.3 inches, which is only slightly wider than the One (2.7 inches). Of course, the 5.9-ounce Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is thinner, lighter, and more compact, measuring 6 inches tall by 3.1 inches wide and 0.33 inch thick.

HTC One Max
Meet the new (and large) HTC One Max. Brian Bennett/CNET

Size aside, the phone is the spitting image of the HTC One Mini, complete with a silver aluminum chassis ringed by white plastic edges. It bears a strong resemblance to the HTC One as well and boasts two large speaker grilles above and below the huge 5.9-inch display. They're part of HTC's vaunted BoomSound audio, and I can vouch that these front-firing speakers get mighty loud yet sound clear and detailed. Also sitting above the screen is the Max's 2.1MP front camera. Around back is the phone's 4MP "UltraPixel" camera and LED flash, the same imaging hardware that HTC uses in the One and One Mini.

I can say that the HTC One Max's curved back is comfy to hold despite the handset's staggering footprint. Its back plate is made from premium aluminum and comes off to reveal a microSD card expansion slot. Just flip the switch on the phone's left edge to unlock the battery door. Don't get your hopes up about the Max's power source, though. While much larger than the One's (2,300mAh) and One Mini's (1,800mAh), the device's 3,300mAh battery is embedded and therefore not user-removable.

HTC shuffled the button layout on the One Max, too. You'll still find the IR blaster on the phone's top edge, but the power button has migrated to the right side, below the thin volume bar. Two capacitive keys for Back and Home flank the discreet HTC logo under the display.

There's no denying the Max's larger size compared with the One Mini and One. Josh Miller/CNET

Beefed-up display
Much of the impulse to buy an almost tablet-size phone is to gain access to a huge display. And indeed, the One Max's LCD display measures 5.9 inches across and sports a full-HD 1080p resolution with a sharp 367 ppi. In my demo the Max showcased colorful imagery with respectably wide viewing angles. Still, the Note 3's higher-contrast display and extremely vivid colors are more impressive to my eyes.

Fingertip security
What's new on the One Max's back panel is a smooth black square, about the size of the lens, that serves as a fingerprint scanner. HTC says that the gizmo lets you log up to three fingers that you can use to unlock the phone in a flash, bypassing the typical lock-screen PIN or pattern security codes. I did notice that unlike on the Apple iPhone 5S, and similar to on the old Motorola Atrix 4G, users must swipe their fingers across the print scanner for the system to operate. Apple's scanner uses a ring design that doesn't require finger movement. Hopefully all this finger sliding won't result in frustrating fingerprint read errors like I had back with the Atrix.

Also odd is the placement of the finger scanner, which is tricky to find by feel alone. Hopefully this will get easier with time and I grudgingly agree with HTC's point that putting the fingertip reader on the back of the phone allows you to operate the scanner (and Max) one-handed. Still I'm sure it will feel like a strange location for many people.

The One Max rocks a fingerprint scanner. Josh Miller/CNET

HTC also hinted at other uses for the One Max's fingerprint scanner, such as letting users link specific fingers to launching particular applications. It's not immediately clear though if a finger swipe will both unlock the Max and fire up the app of your choice. One aspect that does sound interesting is that the Max could conceivably store finger profiles belonging to multiple people. So in theory VIPs like spouses and other family members or even trusted girlfriends and boyfriends could access one given handset.

Core components and software
I have to say I was disappointed to learn that the HTC One Max relies on the same 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor that drives the older HTC One. It also comes with an identical 2GB of RAM backed up by 32GB of internal storage. Trust me; these are great components, but they're not as impressive when compared with the Note 3's 3GB of RAM and the Snapdragon 800 CPU you'll find beating inside it and other fresh smartphones, namely the LG G2 and Sony Xperia Z Ultra.

HTC One Max
Slide the switch to unlock the HTC One Max's battery door. Brian Bennett/CNET

The One Max's camera isn't mind-blowing either, since the device uses the same 4MP hardware used by HTC's other phones. That said, the Max has all the modern software HTC can muster, specifically Android Jelly Bean 4.3, along with the company's latest iteration of its Sense UI, version 5.5.

Under the back cover are a microSD card slot and embedded battery. Josh Miller/CNET

As a result, the One Max now offers enhanced menus that you access by swiping left and right. For instance, you can drag a finger horizontally to tweak the BlinkFeed news aggregator or flip through tracks faster within the Music app with the same gesture. HTC also says that Sense 5.5 improves options for its Zoe Video Highlights so you'll have more editing options without restrictions on video length.

In the short time I had with the HTC One Max, I admit I wasn't that thrilled by it. Sure, it's big and has pleasing smartphone features, but honestly so do the smaller HTC One and One Mini. Its screen didn't bowl me over either, and I found the one on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 much more visually captivating. Let's not kid ourselves here; moving to a huge tablet-style phone comes with trade-offs. A large phone like this is simply harder to carry around and jam into pockets, and I want to get something in return for the diminished convenience. At least the Note 3 serves up a fantastic screen with a side of outrageously swift mobile processing. The Note 3's superior 13MP camera is a tasty and welcome extra, too.

If the HTC One Max resonates with you, look for it to arrive on Verizon and Sprint by the holiday season. You can also check out CNET UK's full review of the HTC One Max global model for an in-depth dive.

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