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

The HTC One Max is a competent big-screen mobile machine but isn't the most powerful phablet money can buy.

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Brian Bennett
11 min read

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.


HTC One Max

The Good

The <b>HTC One Max</b> 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.

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.

HTC's oversized One Max (pictures)

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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.

HTC also heeded complaints that you couldn't add updates from news sites manually when BlinkFeed first debuted. I'm happy to report that Sense 5.5 brings this capability to BlinkFeed, which increases its allure and usefulness greatly.

As a self-acknowledged weather geek, I've always loved how much HTC phones have highlighted current atmospheric conditions. HTC's iconic weather clock widget, which has found a home in its phones since its first Android and even Windows Mobile devices, is no more. Don't fret, though; time and weather forecasts are presented at the top of the BlinkFeed screen, albeit in a much more low-key fashion. An icon here, and on the lock screen, displays current conditions in eye-catching animations for sunshine, rolling clouds, or falling rain or snow.

HTC One Max
Sense 5.5 still showcases slick weather-checking skills. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the HTC One before it, the One Max is equipped with an IR blaster so the phone can double as a remote control. Paired with HTC's TV app, I was quickly able to configure the Max to command my TV and cable box. I suggest you have your local listings handy though, because the app will ask you some rather specific questions. With that data, the app informed me when programs I marked as favorite were on air. Noticeably missing, however, is a way to tag shows for DVR recording. You also can't use the One Max to control other home theater devices, such as digital media players like Roku or Apple TV, since the app only supports TVs and AV receivers.

Sadly, Sprint sprinkled the HTC One Max with plenty of bloatware. Sneakily tucked under an HTC folder in the app tray is SprintZone, which offers access to your Sprint account and that carrier's own software, video, and music storefront in one location. A separate Sprint TV & Movie app hawks live programming from the likes of Fox News, Disney, and ABC, along with video from partners such as Crackle and mFlix. No thanks, Sprint, I'm not interested.

HTC One Max
The One Max's camera app has plenty of settings. Sarah Tew/CNET

Camera and video
On board the HTC One Max is the same imaging system which first made an appearance in the HTC One. Billed as an Ultrapixel camera, the 4 megapixel sensor does operate well under low light conditions without the aid of a flash. And, like my time with the One, details in photos I snapped weren't as sharp as I've seen captured by other high-end smartphones including the Galaxy Note 3, iPhone 5S, and Nokia Lumia 1020.

Even so, the One Max is a nimble shutterbug able to snap shots almost instantly. The phone's camera app comes with a host of compelling features, too, including plenty of scene modes and special filters. Besides traditional fare such as Night, Anti-shake, and Sweep Panorama, there's an HDR mode to pull details out of shadows and silhouettes. Dual capture merges what the front and main camera see into one image. Continuous shooting takes pictures in rapid succession when you hold the virtual camera button down. And you can also grab stills while the 1080p HD video camcorder function is rolling.

Indoor images were well exposed, but not sharp. Brian Bennett/CNET

Want to delve into the ISO, white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness? No problem. There are manual settings for these as well. HTC has also expanded the capabilities of its Zoe photo and video highlights engine. Like the HTC One, the One Max will automatically create montages using the images and video you shoot, set to music. Sense 5.5, however, brings a total of 12 new themes (each with associated editing styles and background tracks) for crafting your personalized highlights.

The HDR mode pulled shadow detail from strong backlighting. Brian Bennett/CNET

For a phone this large, I was a little disappointed that the HTC One Max doesn't offer a processor on par with its main rival, the Galaxy Note 3. Instead of a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800, under the Max's hood is a 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600 -- the same CPU the original One shipped with at launch. Honestly, I expect a phone costing almost $300 on contract to have a faster processor. Complementing this is a sizable 2GB of RAM which I used to consider a generous helping, at least until the Note 3 hit the scene with a full 3GB.

Even with a less than spectacular bucket of parts, the One Max felt lively and spry in my hands. The phone zipped across menu screens and opened applications with agility. I noticed no delays, outside of network connection issues, and using the handset for typical tasks, such as reading messages, Web sites, consuming movies, and music, were buttery smooth.

Benchmark tests backed up my experience with the HTC One, zooming through the Quadrant test and notching a high score of 11,862. That's understandably in the same ballpark of the HTC One (12,194) and Galaxy S4 (11,381), both of which use Snapdragon 600 processors. These results don't hold much water next to what the Note 3 delivered on the same test (23,048). Of course, it's also an undisputed truth that Samsung fiddles with the device to artificially squeeze more performance speed when running benchmarks. Samsung's arch rival LG and its G2 phone was close behind (19,050).

The One Max turned in quick, but not blazing, Quadrant scores. Brian Bennett/CNET

Data speeds
Sprint recently made its 4G LTE network in New York City official, and I was eager to take the carrier's freshly sanctioned infrastructure for a go. Data speeds were literally all over the map with average download speeds coming in at 7Mbps but varying widely, sometimes reaching a peak of 12.3Mbps, or dropping to as low as 1.77Mbps. Uploads hovered around the 1Mbps mark which is low even for faster 3G coverage.

4G speeds on Sprint's LTE network were all over the place. Brian Bennett/CNET

Call quality
I tested the HTC One Max on Sprint's CDMA network in New York. Call quality I experienced was solid but not what I'd call crystal clear. People I spoke to described my voice as compressed and a touch robotic. They didn't notice any major issues and could easily understand my words, though a slight hiss gave away the fact I called from a cellular line.

On my end I heard the odd warble and clip, especially at the start and end of sentences. To be fair though, the One Max had trouble grabbing a 4G signal for long with the phone often flipping between 3G and LTE seemingly at random -- or perhaps by walking a few feet in a given direction.

One bright spot is that people said that my voice through the One Max's speakerphone came through with cleaner audio than via the mouthpiece.

HTC One Max (Sprint) call quality sampleListen now:

Battery life
Serving as the HTC One Max's power source is a high-capacity 3,300mAh battery. I'm sure it played a large part in helping the handset achieve impressively long runtime. The One Max persevered through the CNET Video Playback Battery Drain test for almost 10 hours (596 minutes).

Of course, the Galaxy Note 3 managed to coast along for an extremely lengthy 15 hours on the same test, which involves playing an HD video until the battery calls it quits.

When I first learned of HTC's plans for the One Max I was very eager to give the big phone a spin. The company's HTC One rocked the mobile handset world with its lovely, luxurious aluminum styling and is still one the most beautiful phones I've ever used. The smaller HTC One Mini is also a success considering how good the compact device looks and feels, yet manages to offer a satisfying Android experience.

The $249.99 HTC One Max's metal chassis, however, when blown up to its huge proportions is way too large, heavy, and unwieldy. I never thought I'd sing the praises of a plastic smartphone but the $299.99 Samsung Galaxy Note 3's thinner and lighter footprint is simply more manageable to use. Also, for just $50 extra, the Note 3's more impressive screen, and better components translate into a smarter phablet deal any day of the week.


HTC One Max

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7