HTC One Max review: One Max proves phones can be too big

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The Good The HTC One Max has a massive screen that's bright, colorful, and sharp. The camera is packed with features and takes pictures quickly, plus the phone has a powerful set of stereo speakers.

The Bad The HTC One Max is large and heavy and the integrated fingertip reader often fails to recognize finger swipes. The phone's battery is not removable either, and the One Max's components don't match its high price.

The Bottom Line The HTC One Max has a display big-screened phone shoppers want, but the Samsung Galaxy Note 3's superior design and display make it a better buy.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

With the new One Max, HTC officially enters the burgeoning massive-screened smartphone market. Equipped with an impressive 5.9-inch display that's bright, colorful, and sharp, the HTC One Max will certainly scratch the itch if you're hankering for an Android handset boasting a gigantic viewing area. Unfortunately the phone is much too big and heavy to be practical, and the One Max's fingerprint scanner while intriguing didn't operate as well as I'd hoped.

Also, for its high sticker price ($299.99 on Verizon, and $249.99 through Sprint) the One Max's list of components, including an older Snapdragon 600 processor and 2GB of RAM can't compete with the well-appointed Samsung Galaxy Note 3. For $50 extra, the $299.99 Note 3 has a better, more vibrant screen, 3GB of RAM, not to mention a far more powerful Snapdragon 800 CPU, the HTC One Max.

To be totally honest I wasn't always a big fan of oversize smartphones, but as the average handset chassis has steadily swelled, so too has my acceptance of massive mobile machines. I've even grown fond of some phone juggernauts, especially the impressive Galaxy Note 3. That said, when I pulled the HTC One Max out of the box, its sheer girth was almost intimidating, and I'm not a small man.

HTC One Max
The One Max has a massive 5.9-inch 1080p HD LCD screen. Sarah Tew/CNET

Essentially, the HTC's metallic design language, which I loved in the smaller HTC One and HTC One Mini, unfortunately doesn't translate properly when upscaled to the Max's ridiculous proportions. In a nutshell, the One Max is simply too big, thick, and heavy for me to enjoy using.

At 6.5 inches tall, 3.2 inches wide, and 0.4 inch thick, saying the 7.7-ounce One Max is a handful is a ludicrous understatement. It's over 2 inches longer than the HTC One and well over 2 ounces heavier. HTC tried to keep the device's girth manageable with marginal success, limiting the Max's width to 3.3 inches, which is only slightly wider than the One (2.7 inches). Even so the 5.9-ounce Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which has a display just as huge, is thinner, lighter, and more compact. Measuring 6 inches tall by 3.1 inches wide and 0.33 inch thick, the Note 3 has by far the most manageable design and the most comfortable to hold.

HTC One Max
There's no hiding that you're talking on the One Max. Sarah Tew/CNET

I also found the Max's extra weight made the phone very top heavy. As a matter of fact if I lessened the grip of my bottom fingers, I could actually feel the device wanting to flip over my index finger and right out of my hand.

HTC One Max
Be careful how you hold the One Max's top-heavy frame. Sarah Tew/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, minus the One's unibody aluminum chassis, 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 still 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.

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 discrete HTC logo under the display.

A Super-sized 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 screen measures 5.9 inches across and sports a full HD 1080p resolution with a sharp 367 ppi. The Max certainly showcases crisp imagery with very accurate colors. The phone's big screen also gets very bright and has respectably wide viewing angles, too.

Still, thanks to Samsung's superb implementation of OLED technology, the Note 3's higher-contrast display and extremely vivid colors are more impressive to my eyes. Additionally when viewing photos on the One Max, colors had a slight orange cast when next to the Note 3.

HTC One Max
Swipe your finger downward across the scanner to unlock the phone. Sarah Tew/CNET

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. The gizmo lets you log up to three fingers you can use to unlock the phone in a flash, bypassing the typical lock-screen PIN or pattern security codes. You can also set a specific finger to both unlock the Max then launch particular apps, such as the camera, etc. While I like the idea of finger scanners, the method HTC went about could be better.

For instance, unlike the Apple iPhone 5S, but similar to 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. In my experience all this finger sliding resulted in frustrating fingerprint read errors like I had back with the Atrix. This was especially true if I slid my finger too quickly, or swipped down at an angle (not straight from top to bottom).

HTC One Max
Often the fingerprint scanner had problems. Sarah Tew/CNET

Also odd is the placement of the finger scanner, which is tricky to find by feel alone. 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. That said I often found myself mistaking the camera lens for the scanner, resulting in me smudging the Max's optics with finger grease. If one thing is high on my list of smartphone tragedies, it's snapping a bunch of choice pictures then realizing later they're just blurry messes caused by a dirty camera lens.

Software and interface
The HTC One Max phone I tested came running modern Android software, specifically Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. While its not the latest and greatest iteration of Google's operating system, Android 4.4 KitKat, Jelly Bean still packs plenty of powerful mobile features. The One Max natively supports Google's vast selection of software and services including Gmail, Google+ social networking, Google Hangouts, Google Drive just to list a few. Of course the device also puts the over one million apps living in the Google Play store mere clicks away.

Just like the One and One Mini, grafted over Android is HTC's most recent Sense UI. This time around though the One Max features Sense version 5.5, the company's first handset sold in the U.S. to do so. With the fresh infusion of software comes a few new skills and refinements. And while Android skins are nothing new, Sense in my view is one of the more elegant software overlays designed by a handset maker. I find its clean fonts and bundled enhancements on the light side, especially compared with Samsung's heavy handed touchwiz UI. Still, as with any interface, Sense offers tweaks you may or may not find of value.

BlinkFeed, a main home screen made up of square and rectangular tiles, display content from a large selection of news outlets, blogs, and Web sites (including CNET). If you've used popular news aggregators, such as Flipboard and Pulse, then Blinkfeed should be nothing new. It's also similar to the My Magazine screen Samsung includes on the Note 3.

HTC One Max
BlinkFeed puts news and social updates in one place. Sarah Tew/CNET

By default the BlinkFeed screen is set as the phone's primary home screen. You can, however, select any of the HTC One's home screens as its starting point. Even better, HTC has now added the ability to remove BlinkFeed entirely, an option that's lacking on the HTC One and HTC One Mini. In comparison, you're stuck with My Magazine churning behind the scenes on the Note 3.